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Publisher: Harper, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2013
Material: hard cover
Summary: Nothing is easy for John Smith. For one thing, his name is John Smith, Jr. (he much prefers Houdini). Then his dad lost his job, and his older brother Franklin came home from Iraq. The family needs money. So Houdini and his friends start a leaf-raking business, and with guidance from a famous author, he sets out to write a book. With "Ten Rules for Writing a Kid's Novel" to guide him, it'll be easy to write a book everybody loves. Right? This middle grade novel about a family and three lifelong friends explores modern-day issues of growing up.
Type of Reading: bedtime story, independent reading, read aloud book, reluctant reader
Recommended Age: read together: 9 to 12; read yourself: 11 and up
Interest Level: 9 to 13
Reading Level: 5.7
Age of Child: Read with and by an 11-year-old girl.
Young Reader Reaction: "This was a good book, mom." Interestingly enough, our daughter was drawn more to the secondary characters Lucky (who was anything but), Jorge, and Angel (the neighborhood bully). We were surprised that she stayed with it until the end.
Adult Reader Reaction: Enjoyable story, modern plot elements. It took me a couple chapters to get into the book, because I felt bogged down by all of Houdini's explanations (i.e., setting the stage). But once we got past that, it was fun to read.
Pros: Lighter moments and realistic vignettes combine for a thoughtful, well-written story. Kids will easily see themselves in these characters and their situations.
Borrow or Buy: Borrow, at least. This is a very well written book. It tackles some hard topics with care and deftness ... and kids may want to come back to the book on those proverbial hard days.
Educational Themes: This would be an exceptional choice for a father-son book club. There are several plot points that make it easy to start discussions about family responsibility, PTSD, joblessness, friendship, commitments, bullying, and problem solving.
Notes: The publisher donated a copy of this book knowing that we would consider it for review and provide an independent, unbiased profile. This book will be given to a nonprofit to help readers in need.
Literary Categories: Fiction - friendship, school, coming of age, contemporary, realistic fiction, family, problem solving, middle grade
Date(s) Reviewed: March 2014
Other Reviews: See Critics' Reviews at barnesandnoble.com, and reviews and reader feedback at amazon.com.